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U.S. Strikes Somalia

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: January 10, 2007

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The last time the U.S. military conducted operations in Somalia in 1993, eighteen soldiers died in a two-day firefight on the streets of Mogadishu. That prompted a quick pullout and a nearly decade-long aversion to U.S. military intervention. But much has changed since the 1990s, and now, under the auspices of the “global war on terror,” Somalia is once again in U.S. crosshairs, evidenced Monday night in an air strike in southern Somalia (FT) which left many dead. The strike may mark the start of a more robust U.S. presence in the Horn of Africa. On Tuesday, the Navy announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier off the coast of Somalia, where three other warships have patrolled the waters since violence in the country escalated two weeks ago. Later on Tuesday, helicopter gunships attacked fighters in the south (AP), though it was not clear whether the aircraft were American.

The United States has long maintained that high-ranking al-Qaeda officials use the failed Somali state as a safe haven. The targets of the U.S. attack were senior al-Qaeda leaders (LAT), including those responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. A high-ranking Somali official told the Washington Post on Tuesday that at least one of the wanted men died in the strike. A Backgrounder examines terrorist activity in Somalia.

These kind of air strikes, known as targeted killings, comprise an important element of the U.S. strategy to combat terrorists. Newsweek reports that the senior Pentagon leaders in charge of these special operations will soon step down. Though there is no evidence that new Defense Secretary Robert Gates disapproved of the Somalia strike, he previously expressed displeasure with the Defense Department’s level of involvement in intelligence operations.

Somalia has endured more than its usual amount of turmoil in the last year, during which an Islamist militia took near complete control of the country, imposing sharia law, and forcing the official government to retreat. But in the last two weeks, Somali and Ethiopian forces routed the militia, capturing the capital of Mogadishu and raising fears that, as in Iraq, a prolonged insurgency will follow the swift takeover. Sally Healy, a regional expert at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, tells the BBC the U.S. military action is “intended to minimize the likelihood of an Islamic insurgency developing.” But the Times of London warns the strategy could “backfire spectacularly,” uniting Somalis against their U.S.-backed government. Nevertheless, terrorism expert Douglas Farah suggests that the United States could take similar action “with increasing frequency in more remote areas of the world where the Islamist threat exists.”

Concern remains that the Somali conflict could still spill over into several neighboring countries. In a recent CFR.org Podcast, Terrence Lyons, an associate professor at George Mason University, said an international peacekeeping force presents the best prospects for stability both in Somalia and the region. Lyons also authored a recent Council Special Report, which recommends U.S. policies he believes will ease regional tensions. The Economist suggests quick, decisive action on a peacekeeping force might spare Somalia from returning to its normal anarchic state.

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